Friday, 16 July 2010

Cake: a global history (Nicola Humble)

As Darlene said in a comment on my post about Wedding cakes and Cultural History on Wednesday, I have been completing immersing myself in cakes of late (well, perhaps that isn't a hugely accurate sentence as I'm not planning to do a Marilyn Monroe and jump out of a cake quite yet). So I was very excited to see a new book being published by Reaktion Books called Cake: a global history, and Maria from Reaktion books very kindly sent me a copy to peruse. I've mentioned Reaktion books before, when I wrote about two of the books from their animals series, but this book comes from a new series called "The edible series" which explore different themes relating to consumption - Pizza, Milk, Pie, Curry, to name a few (you can see the whole list here)

But back to the cake book. The blurb on the inside of the front cover provides an excellent summary "[it] explores the origin of modern cake and its development from sweet bread to architectural flight of fancy, together with the meanings, legends and rituals attached to cake throughout the world".

Humble traces cakes form their earliest origins; apparently the oldest cakes known were discovered by archaeologists in Switzerland amongst Neolithic remains, but they were more along the lines of "oatcake" rather than the sort of cake we know today. Humble describes how cake evolved from bread; the two were virtually interchangeable for a very long time. But other precursors of the cake are the plum puddings traditionally made for Christmas (boiled rather than baked as few households had access to the ovens needed) and pancakes. She suggests that the modern cake as we know it today was a product of changes in the 17th and 18th centuriesd - the development of a cake hoop to keep the batter in place (as we use baking tins), the development of ovens and the rise of other raising agents apart from yeast (first eggs and then chemical raising agents).

My favourite chapter was that on Literary Cakes. The two most famous examples of cakes in literature are given as being Miss Haversham's wedding cake in Great Expectations, and Proust's Madeleines, but Humble also mentions the cakes in Alice (and its concept that cake is not to be eaten fitting in with the idea that cake is "bad"), cake in Cranford, Anne of Green Gables and in Katherine Mansfield's short story The garden party. I am sure we could all think of many examples to add to these.

The book is lavishly illustrated throughout, with reproductions of paintings involving cake and of course pictures of cakes (although I wasn't sure about the picture of a wedding cake made entirely out of bones - it looked good, but the concept - urghgh!) and concludes with a small selection of recipes - Ancient Cakes (including Kugelhopf and Panforte), Classic Cakes (including Victoria Sandwich and Lemon Drizzle) and Unusual cakes (including a recipe for a French savoury cake with artichokes, olives and gruyere).

I think these would make ideal gifts for any foodies in your life - I am sure you could find an appropriate edible for almost anyone!


  1. A chapter on Literary cakes - what more could one ask for in a book?! Happy Saturday

  2. As strange as it sounds, I find these sorts of books really fascinating. I think there must be a book on nearly every topic. But you can learn so much about social history/how people lived. I think I might just have to see if I can find this book--I've not heard of the publisher before.

  3. This sounds like the perfect book to give as a gift to someone who enjoys baking :)

  4. Literary Cakes! That would be a chapter which would have you putting the kettle on and sinking down a bit further in your chair!

  5. Joan - indeed :)

    Danielle - it's not strange at all - I am absolutely fascinated too.

    Iris - yes, I would have been very happy with it as a present.

    Darlene - yes, it should really have been read with tea and cake.


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